A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald
Saint Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
June 18, 2017
Second Sunday after Pentecost-Year A
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Ps. 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
It’s been a horrendous week in our national life.
I’m referring to the shooting of Steve Scalise, the Republican majority whip of the House of Representatives, on Wednesday morning while playing baseball with his colleagues in Virginia.
As Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Long Island noted in his op-ed in the New York Times, this wasn’t just an attack on members of Congress and their staff but on one of the few vestiges of bipartisanship left in Congress: baseball.
Every year, Republicans and Democrats compete against each other in the Congressional Baseball Game. The objective is not score political points, says Israel, but to score points. The first game was organized by a representative from Pennsylvania in 1909, who before his time in Congress played as a pitcher and outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles and other teams.[i]
When the congressmen compete in this annual event, writes Israel, it is spirited but civil. There are no angry diatribes about left field versus right field. There are fastballs and curveballs, but no one beans a batter because of how he voted.
Well, the Democrats won the game but more importantly, players from both teams wore bright yellow LSU hats in honor of Scalise, an alumnus of the university.
And a photo taken at the game gives us at least a momentary flash of hope: Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell laughing together before the game.
Sports take us out of ourselves, if only briefly. Rivalries are intense but, for the most part, they’re civil.
And there’s the added rush we feel every time the baseball flies out of the park: for the Red Sox fan, the exhilaration when David Ortiz slammed a home run and, finger raised skyward, jogged around the bases. Or, for the Yankees fans, an Aaron Judge 457-foot cannon shot.
It’s that element of surprise, of joy, of laughter that takes us out of ourselves.
When asked by an interviewer what he believed his greatest gift was, the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel replied: My ability to be surprised.
Heschel was referring to the human sense of wonder.
Without amazement, awe, and wonder, he reasoned, no reverence is possible, no religious faith life giving. Our brains gravitate to surprise as much as our best religious yearnings do; openness to grace, to unmerited gift, the common denominator.
That’s why I love the story of Sarah standing at the door of the tent, eavesdropping on Abraham as he conversed with the three visiting travellers who prophesied that about this time next year Sarah your wife will bear a son.
This was actually the second time that Abraham had received this promise. The first time he heard it he fell face down, laughed, and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?
The Letter to the Hebrews goes a step further, describing Abraham as a man as good as dead.
Hiding behind the tent flap, Sarah responded the same way that Abraham did when she overhead that outrageous suggestion. She laughed because she knew the facts: it had ceased to be with her after the manner of women.
‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ she says. Erotic pleasure? The surprising gift of a newborn baby? Sarah laughed because it was too good to be true.
The strangers—angels in disguise—replied to a skeptical Sarah: Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, compares openness to wonder and surprise, of expecting something to burst through the ordinary, to that of an experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert… [knowing] that this is the kind of place something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.[ii]
And so the following year, the story from Genesis continues, the extraordinary, the unimaginable, bursts into view, the gift to Sarah and Abraham of a son, Isaac, which in Hebrew means he laughs. Sarah says God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.
Laughter is contagious and I, for one, need it. Laughter as response to gift, to surprise, to unmerited grace.
The writer Anne Lamott calls laughter carbonated holiness, that sacred tickle that transforms even our despair, our grief, our cynicism into joy.
This last week, as many weeks of late, we’ve had reason enough to feel all of the above—despair, grief, cynicism—and more.
So perhaps, this day, this week, poised and awake, we can watch for something wonderful to burst into view; catch a glimpse of the unexpected life changing flash of a wing, the healing grace at the heart of the world. [iii]AMEN
[ii] Williams, Rowan Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life Eerdmanns Publishing Co.; 2016 p. 4ff
[iii] Ibid.; p. 8